Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Meeting the Olson Dodos

I saw one once, at the Natural History Museum in Oxford. Not a live one of course- but there's only three places in the world with a complete skeleton of the dodo- and Oxford is one of them. They say the dodo is much slimmer than was originally thought, and not this plump epitome of failed fitness.

Which brings us to the movie of tonight, Flock of Dodos. My friend Adrian was helping to sponsor it at the Pacific Science Center. As it was showing here in honor of the upcoming Evolution Sunday and subsequent Darwin Day, I got to see the movie currently touring the country and offending everyone. I had heard it described as a comedy, attacking both intelligent design and evolution, so it was a bit surprised to find to find a very insightful condemnation of intelligent design, with minimal humor.

Randy Olson tells the story with some of the style of Michael Moore, using dry wit, multiple interviews, and an overt agenda. He was an evolutionary marine biologist who decided to go into film, and here looks at all angles of the intelligent design controversy and how it tries to attack evolution. It's short on content and long on entertainment, and that's for a purpose. The goal of the movie is to show how behind biologists are in public relations, and how much more they need to do. And the movie did this admirably. The evolutionists come across as either Ivory Tower scientists who can't relate to the public, or real prigs who you wouldn't want to drink with. The ID folks are all pretty likable, but simultaneously really off when it comes to science, for the most part not knowing anything behind what they are saying. Olson wishes to point out this huge gulf between the facts and likability, and call scientists to a place where they can start to actually reach out to the public on a level that doesn't require four years of grad school to understand. This is actually something that one regularly finds, even outside the movie- in discussions between scientists and intelligent design folks, the scientists have all the facts, and the ID people are the nice ones that you want to agree with even if they're wrong. The scientists are therefore the dodos. (That said, I've got to say that I have personally run into ID supporters who are decidedly unpleasant, particularly towards Theistic Evolutionists.) This movie's raised a lot of controversy because the Discovery Institute, based here in Seattle and the leader of the ID movement, complains that they weren't consulted and that the movie is very biased against them. Likewise the scientific community complains that the movie makes them look bad and that Olson is calling for them to dumb down their material.
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Now the bonus of the night was that, after the movie, an information systems biologist from U Dub and Randy Olson himself hosted a Q and A. (However, for some strange reason, under very poor lighting in the Science Center.) Most of the questions in liberal Seattle were from the evolutionary side, although there were a couple DI folks in the audience as well. There were a slew of questions over the next 45 minutes, including one guy who felt it was his right to ask many questions in a row. (Happily he made up for this afterward by monopolizing Olson privately with another group of questions.) Some wanted to know about how the movie was constructed, and others about how best to communicate scientific ideas. And the biology professor did an excellent job of communicating, particularly on the myriad ways biologists can answer the supposed principle of irreducible complexity. He waxed rather eloquent on this subject, and greatly enjoyed discussing how the eye could evolve and the ways we have of understating the evolution of the flagella.
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Pharyngula reported earlier today on Panda's Thumb about the first attacks by DI on the film. They are both rather weak. The first is a bit involved to explain. One of the big arguments Literal Creationists and Intelligent Designers like to raise is of Haekel's embryology pictures. Haekel was an evolutionary biologist who, shortly after Darwin, indicated that embryos of different species look very alike, and this indicates that they have a common ancestor. This became the doctrine with the complex name, ontology recapitulates phylogeny. However, in order to prove his point, Haekel doctored up his pictures, to make them look much more alike. (It should be noted he also did some really great biological research as well in other areas.) Then this got picked up and taught in schools. The Intelligent Design Crowd likes to then make the claim that this is still being taught in high-school and college textbooks across the nation. I've even had a director in a school I used to work in consistently argue this.
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The problems with this idea are manifold. Olson points this out in the movie, where he searches through many biology textbooks, and asks ID folks to do so, and they can't find the images. The images actually only appear in some textbooks in the beginning as a classic example of scientific fraud and how science has grown. In fact, Olson finally was able to find a textbook with Haekel's woodcuts in it, used for scientific purposes- printed in 1914.
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Beyond this, and not addressed in the movie, is the issue over the doctored images ignores the very real truth that there are marked similarities between embryos of pigs, fish, salamanders, and humans. It is not a one-to-one correlation with the embryo developing in the evolutionary path, as Haekel argued, but rather strong similarities in embryo development, indicating a common evolutionary root, as evolution has a common stock to work with. Of course, this was noted long before Haekel, or Darwin, by the Literal Creationist Van Baer, in order to prove creationism at a time when evolution was argued to occur only along set lines and not a branching tree. Therefore by showing the similarities Van Baer wanted to show that evolution couldn't be possible, because organisms were too similar.
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The Discovery Institute has accused Olson of getting this point wrong, and that in actual fact there are plenty of textbooks with these images in them. (It's just that scientists have a hard time finding them. Likely IDers are referring to images showing similarities between embryos rather than Haekel's actual drawings, or the drawings again are supposed to indicate past fraud in science, and not a teaching of the way things are.) One of the DI plants in the audience asked a question along these lines. Olson expressed regret above all that this is a really trivial matter that IDers are raising. Even when the pictures have appeared, what is taught in the textbooks is that there are similarities between embryos indicating common ancestry, and this is true. In the rare cases where the images do sadly show up, Haekel's Biogenic Law is not taught, and there are actual similarities between embryos- just not as much as those select pictures would indicate. These similarities can be seen in actual photos, which often show up in modern biology texts.
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Olson also spoke about how he tried repeatedly to get ahold of the Discovery Institute, wanting to show them in a good light in the movie, to show scientists how they really have their act together in terms of publicity. But the DI repeatedly didn't return his calls, thinking he was some guy doing a student project. He even had Behe, who he interviews for two hours, write them a recommendation for him. But the DI didn't call Olson back until the movie was already in production. And now their Publicity Manager is evidently really kicking herself.
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Some of the evolutionary biologists come across as rather negative in the movie, and I must confess I felt for a bit like I was watching a Borat kind of thing, where Olson catches a guy making an ass of himself in a couple minutes of film, and highlights that. So I was actually gratified to hear the footage he didn't show. When talking to Intelligent Designer Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box), and asking him if he was concerned about the what kids in public schools were learning, Behe thinks for a moment, and then asks "Why should I care? My kids are in private school."
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Olson tells us he decided not to show this footage, as this was at the end of a two hour interview in which Behe showed himself to be a very nice and likable guy. In other words, the one comment wasn't indicative of Behe, and so it was not shown. However, the evolutionary biologist who's a real prig to his fellow scientists acts like that throughout the two hour card game, and show it was not a "Gotcha" moment- it truly showed his character, and therefore made it into the movie.
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When asked their thoughts on Dawkins, both speakers were unaminous in declaring he was the most public image of evolution since the death of Stephen J. Gould (peace be upon him). They both felt he is a great biologist. And they both felt that his conflation of religion and science, by claiming that science can and does disprove God, has done a great diservice to biology, evolution, and this entire controversy. He provides more fodder for the religious right, and goes beyond the bounds of what science is. One said he is the Chief Public Evolutionist, and increasingly the Chief Public Atheist, and he confuses those two roles, so that the general public feels that they must give up religion to follow science.
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After the Q&A I got to listen in to some private questions of Olson, and ask one or two of my own. Of particular interest was hearing about the great Stephen J. Gould, author of numerous texts. It turns out the information systems biologist there learned evolutionary biology from Gould, and Olson also studied under him. Olson described Gould as one of the most brilliant men he had ever met, able to hold in tons of information at once, particularly about science and history. Unfortunately, the cancer and fame of his last fifteen years wore on him, and he became increasingly a curmudgeon. But one of Olson's favorite stories of Gould was when he and other grad students were gathered around Gould, and Gould proposed a game- name all of the least deserving Noble Prize winners. Very few in the group could think of even one Noble Prize winner. But Gould named about 12 different undeserving winners, one after the other. His grasp of science and history was just that good.
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I got a chance to ask Olson about the other major DI accusation against him. PZ Meyers points out on Pharyngula the paucity of logic in DI's arguments here. Olson states that a big reason for the success of the Discovery Institute here is a five million dollar budget, as compared to the $650,000 annual budget of the National Center for Science Education, a similar organization working on science, and partly for evolution. DI claims this is fraudulent, because their budget is only 4.2 million, and the budget for work on ID specifically only 1.2 million.
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I asked Olson if he could respond to this. He felt again that DI is looking at trivia, in a difference between 4.2 million and 5 million, when the NCSE has such a much smaller budget for all of science. He also mentioned that, after the DI refused to return any of his calls, and after the movie came out, they sent him emails about the items on the embryos and the budget. He went back and reviewed the data, and discovered the DI was correct- their budget was indeed only 4.2 million. But at that late date he didn't want to spend the extra $1000 to correct a trivial difference, especially since the Discovery Institute had refused to correct facts at an earlier point in the film making.
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Olson and Flock of Dodos consistently point out the facts are on the side of evolution- but facts aren't enough to sway the public. And these days, with the information revolution of the last fifteen years, we need to know how to communicate. Groups like the Discovery Institute know how to do this, and unless scientists get on the ball, it is the Intelligent Designers who will win the public, and therefore the battle, in the end.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

the ID people are the nice ones that you want to agree with even if they're wrong, as you can see in this film between Dawkins and Ted Haggard.

You have got to be kidding! That film makes me want to do the world a favor by jumping through the screen and strangle Haggard. How can you watch that and not be sick to your stomach?

@bdul muHib said...

By considering only the video in front of me. Remember, the point of that clip, and of the film Flock of Dodos, is not that Haggard and the Literal Creationists are correct- quite the opposite. It is that they are more likable. When I watch that clip by itself, without considering the truth of what they are saying, or what we learned of Ted later, yes, Ted comes across as much more likable than Dawkins, who frankly seems a bit of a prig, in that clip.

But despite the size of the video, really, that's a rather small issue in my post. The larger issue of the film is that scientists don't know how to do good publicity, and the ID crowd comes across as much more likable- and measure for measure, that's true.

And frankly, I found much more interesting the revelations I stated about Behe later in the post, as well as Olson's responses to the DI's criticisms. The clip of Dawkins is old news and only intended as an example to the larger point.

Joe said...

So...help me (and others who haven't seen the whole film) understand something. How did Olson manage to get a video of a confrontation between Haggard and Dawkins?

In any case, I have to say I agree more with your first commenter. Haggard's mannerisms (the smirk in particular) are every bit as condescending as Dawkins' words. While Haggard is right that Dawkins needs to be less arrogant, it is the epitome of arrogrance for Haggard himself to be telling Dawkins he doesn't know much about science ("you are accepting SOME views of SOME portions of the scientific community as fact...maybe you haven't met the people I have (heh heh)").

I almost felt sorry for Dawkins, he looks genuinely offended that Haggard can be so self-righteous and scientifically ignorant. You know how that feels, don't you?

@bdul muHib said...

Okay, I'm removing the YouTube video. It wasn't from the movie, but I thought it made the same point. Evidently I'm in the minority on that, and it's making the opposite point- but the film Flock of Dodos makes the point a lot better.